CAIRO – Egypt’s civilian Cabinet offered to resign Monday after three days of violent clashes between demonstrators and security forces in Tahrir Square, but the action failed to satisfy protesters deeply frustrated with the new military rulers.
The Health Ministry and a doctor at an improvised field hospital on the square said at least 26 people have been killed and 1,750 wounded in the latest violence as activists sought to fill the streets for a “second revolution” to force out the generals who have failed to stabilize the country, salvage the economy or bring democracy.
Throughout the day, young protesters demanding the military hand over power to a civilian government fought with black-clad police, hurling stones and firebombs and throwing back the tear gas canisters being fired by police into the square, which was the epicenter of the movement that ousted authoritarian leader Hosni Mubarak.
By midnight tens of thousands of protesters were in the huge downtown square.
The clashes have deepened the disarray among Egypt’s political ranks, with the powerful Muslim Brotherhood balking at joining in the demonstrations, fearing that turmoil will disrupt elections next week that the Islamists expect to dominate.
Story continues below
The protests in Tahrir and elsewhere across this nation of some 85 million people have forced the ruling military council as well as the Cabinet it backs into two concessions, but neither were significant enough to send anyone home.
The council issued an anti-graft law that bans anyone convicted of corruption from running for office or holding a government post, a move that is likely to stop senior members from the Mubarak regime from running for public office.
Hours later, the Cabinet of Prime Minister Essam Sharaf submitted its resignation to the council, a move that was widely expected given the government’s perceived inefficiency and its almost complete subordination to the generals.
Protesters cheered and shouted “God is great!” when the news arrived of the Cabinet resignation offer, but they almost immediately resumed their chant of “The people want to topple the field marshal” – a reference to military ruler Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi.
“We are not clearing the square until there is a national salvation government that is representative and has full responsibility,” said activist Rami Shaat, who was at the site.
The council released a statement late Monday calling for a national dialogue to “urgently study the reasons for the current crisis and ways to overcome it.”
The statement, carried by Egypt’s state news agency, said the military deeply regrets the loss of life and has ordered the Justice Ministry to form a committee to investigate the incidents of the past few days. The military said it ordered security forces to take measures that would protect demonstrators, who have the right to peaceful protest.
White House spokesman Jay Carney said the United States was deeply concerned about the violence and urged restraint on all sides so Egypt could proceed with a timely transition to democracy.
U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon also deplored the loss of life and called on authorities “to guarantee the protection of human rights and civil liberties for all Egyptians, including the right to peaceful protest,” U.N. spokesman Martin Nesirky said.
Amnesty International harshly criticized the military rulers in a new report, saying they have “completely failed to live up their promises to Egyptians to improve human rights.”
The London-based group documented steps by the military that have fallen short of increasing human rights and in some cases have made matters worse than under Mubarak.
“The euphoria of the uprising has been replaced by fears that one repressive rule has simply been replaced with another,” according to the report, issued Tuesday.
The report called for repeal of the Mubarak-era “emergency laws,” expanded to cover “thuggery” and criticizing the military. It said the army has placed arbitrary restrictions on media and other outlets.
Egyptian security forces have continued to use torture against demonstrators, the report said, and some 12,000 civilians have been tried in military trials, which it called “unfair.”
In many ways, the protests in Tahrir bore a striking resemblance to the 18-day uprising that toppled Mubarak. The chants are identical, except that Tantawi’s name has replaced Mubarak’s.
“The people want the execution of the marshal,” protesters screamed Monday. The hallmark chant of “erhal,” or “leave,” that once was aimed at Mubarak is now meant for Tantawi, his defence minister for 20 years.
Some of the protesters demanded that the generals immediately step down in favour of a presidential civilian council.
“If the military steps down, then who will be left to run the country until elections are held?” said Ahmed Fathy, a 27-year-old dentist who prefers a date for the handover rather than the departure of the military now. “The military can strike back by turning the nation against us.”
About 5,000 to 7,000 protesters were in Tahrir Square for most of the day but the number rose to around 30,000 after nightfall – nowhere near filling it but displaying the strength of the movement despite the military’s tireless campaign to marginalize the youths who drove Mubarak from office.
Protesters also marched in other cities, including thousands of students in the coastal city of Alexandria.
Unlike in January and February when the demonstrators were united against Mubarak, the latest protests reflect political divisions and Egypt’s growing economic hardships and tenuous security.
Islamists led by the Muslim Brotherhood, the country’s largest and best-organized political group, are not taking part in the protests this time, a stand that has been widely seen as motivated by a desire not to get involved in anything that could disturb parliamentary elections that are due to start Nov. 28 and conclude in March.
But the Brotherhood, whose supporters gave muscle to the protesters in January and February, may have underestimated the appeal of the secular-minded activists and the depth of anger over the military rulers’ failings and the inefficiency of the Cabinet that the generals support.
To many of the protesters, the Brotherhood and its allies, mainly the ultraconservative Salafis, are more keen on winning parliamentary seats than the future of the nation.
That so many protesters are in Tahrir Square without the participation of the Islamists could provide the liberal pro-reform groups with a boost that would fuel their movement in the face of the military’s perceived intransigence.
“We don’t need them,” Zeinab Kheir, a lawyer and an activist, said referring to the Brotherhood, vilified by many activists as an opportunistic, self-serving group.
“We want the (military) council to leave immediately so we can continue our revolution, which the military sold out,” said Mohammed Ali, a shoemaker among the protesters. “A civilian Cabinet from the square is what we want.”
The divisions between the secularists and Islamists surfaced in the square Monday when senior Brotherhood leader Mohammed el-Beltagy was heckled by protesters who threw water bottles at him. He hurriedly left.
However, moderate Islamists from two groups – the Wasat, or Centrist party, and supporters of presidential hopeful Abdel-Monaem Abul Fetouh – said they would take part in a big protest dubbed “National Salvation” planned for Tuesday.
Throughout the day, the sounds of gunfire crackled around Tahrir Square, and a constant stream of injured protesters – bloodied from rubber bullets or overcome by tear gas – were brought on motorbikes into makeshift clinics on sidewalks, where volunteer doctors scrambled from patient to patient.
A morgue official said the toll had climbed to 24 dead since the violence began Saturday – a jump from the toll of five dead around nightfall Sunday, reflecting the ferocity of fighting. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to release the numbers.
Since Mubarak fell and the military took over, Egypt’s revolution has been mired in frustration and confusion. Activists and many in the public accuse the generals of seeking to hold on to power, and they fear that the military will dominate the next government no matter who wins the election. Many Egyptians are also frustrated by the failure of the military and the caretaker government to conduct any real reforms, halt widespread insecurity or salvage a rapidly worsening economy.
The military says it will hand over power only after presidential elections, which it has vaguely said will be held in late 2012 or early 2013.
On Monday, a group of 133 diplomats from the Foreign Ministry took the rare step of issuing a petition demanding that the military commit to hold presidential elections and transfer power by 2012.
“What does it mean, transfer power in 2013? It means simply that he wants to hold on to his seat,” said protester Mohammed Sayyed, referring to Tantawi.
Sayyed carried two rocks as he took cover from tear gas in a sidestreet off Tahrir Square. He wore a bandage on his head after being hit by what he said was a rubber bullet.
“I will keep coming back until they kill me,” he said. “The people are frustrated. Nothing changed for the better.”
Associated Press writers Ben Hubbard, Aya Batrawy and Maggie Michael contributed to this report.